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Congress’s Gujarat Model

Suhas Palshikar ( is a political commentator, and former teacher of politics and public administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.

Following the result of the Gujarat assembly elections, the print media has witnessed a slew of write-ups by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionaries trumpeting the party’s victory and explaining how its indefatigable leadership and deep organisational roots contributed to that victory. Though the BJP managed to retain Gujarat, it would be really tough to argue that it “won” the elections. Though it did add slightly to its vote share compared to 2012, the party lost seats to the extent that it could almost have lost the majority.

Following the result of the Gujarat assembly elections, the print media has witnessed a slew of write-ups by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionaries trumpeting the party’s victory and explaining how its indefatigable leadership and deep organisational roots contributed to that victory. Though the BJP managed to retain Gujarat, it would be really tough to argue that it “won” the elections. Though it did add slightly to its vote share compared to 2012, the party lost seats to the extent that it could almost have lost the majority. On the other hand, while the Congress did make an impressive comeback, it too cannot really claim victory. Nevertheless, the comeback of the Congress does deserve attention not only because the party would hope to repeat such improvement in other states, but also because both the strategy and image of leadership went through changes.

So, the question that the Gujarat election throws up is about the Congress’s road to revival. Does the campaign in Gujarat signify the shaping of the party’s own “Gujarat model”—a new model that would give it electoral advantage and also a broad strategy that can be adopted elsewhere too? Following its devastating defeat in 2014 and a long period of silence and inaction, the Congress saw a glimmer of hope in Punjab when it won the assembly election there in 2017. But after all, that was a home-grown harvest under the stewardship of Captain Amarinder Singh.

The imprint of the party’s national leadership was missing in Punjab. Now in Gujarat, though it failed to win a majority, its decent performance and the positive impression made by Rahul Gandhi have indicated some action and probably some revival at the top. But precisely for that reason, the questions about Congress’s plan, strategy and approach become necessary and pertinent.

Welfare Populism

If one looks at the Congress manifesto for the Gujarat election, the first impression, as is the case with most manifestoes of Indian political parties, is that it offers everything to everyone. Parties often avoid building up on societal cleavages; instead, they attempt to imagine an absence of cleavages and evolve a package of promises that would include everyone under the umbrella of benevolence of the party. The Congress manifesto is not an exception to this. In view of the weakness of the party, the strategy to avoid cleavage-based politics might not be faulted. Accordingly, the Congress manifesto almost reminds us of the good old days of welfare politics. It promises sops and ameliorative alternatives to various sections from women to farmers and students to the jobless. This might look attractive and even useful for immediate gains. Because after all, well-being must be the focus of the government in a society with entrenched social hierarchies and wide chasm between the rich and the poor. But just as questions of welfare are ideological, they are also practical.

The practical aspect of the many promises that the Congress manifesto gives are manifold. First, the party needed to indicate how it was going to raise resources for fulfilling those promises. For instance, the idea of creating a fund for an unemployment allowance is indeed worth serious thought but it would also require a clue to building adequate resource base. This takes us to the second practical issue—that of priorities. Well-being or welfare is a broad term and parties, when they think of governance, have to make up their minds as to who the primary beneficiary would be and which social sectors will get priority attention. Like Narendra Modi’s “achche din,” the Congress’s promises appear too broad to be realised into a policy framework. Three, and perhaps the most crucial, behind attractive packages, there has to be a clear promise about restructuring policy universe. If the Congress does not simply want to go back to its old ways of distributing state resources among the party’s imaginary or intended supporters, it has to seriously think of new policy approach combining distributive fairness, governance efficiency and prudent fiscal management. Such practical aspects make the ideology of welfare a substantive possibility. Otherwise, the party and its manifesto would be liable to the criticism that they seek shelter behind “doles” and ad hoc measures. In the absence of these practical considerations, the many promises appear to be empty rhetoric or welfare populism.

Retrieving the Rainbow

The other and Gujarat-specific aspect of the Congress strategy was to retrieve its famous rainbow coalition. Moving slightly away from KHAM (Kshatriya, Adivasi, Harijan, Muslim), the party made serious attempts to attract the Patels into its fold. But the promise that the party gave to the Patels is cynical at best and ill-thought-out at worst. Besides, running after upper- and middle-caste votes has meant that the support that the Congress would get/expect from communities on the margins would erode because of the deep divisions of caste and class—many of these are more typical of Gujarati society and have no doubt become sharper due to the BJP’s Gujarat model. But overall too, taking an ostrich-like view of social conflicts is going to hurt in the long run. The rainbow that Indian society used to be, has considerably vanished and the task is not merely to craft a broad political coalition but to actually reimagine and rebuild that rainbow in the first place for it to reflect in the party’s social base.

One could say, of course, that this is a long-term task, but the approach of the party in Gujarat did not give any promise of handling the gigantic task. Its Gujarat strategy was only tentative and lacking in determination. No wonder, Congress ended up getting some votes from upper castes and Patels but could not capitalise upon that due to the less enthusiastic support from Dalits and Adivasis. The Gujarat experiment thus warns the party of the hurdles in retrieving the rainbow of social sections. Already, the party’s loss in Maharashtra was due to the fading of that rainbow and currently in Karnataka, the party is finding it hard to retain a rainbow coalition beyond mere electoral gains.

Bringing young leaders from Dalit, Kshatriya and Patel communities close to the party was an interesting move. However, the Congress still could not make inroads among urban and educated voters. This is mainly because notwithstanding the importance of caste differentiations, issues of aspirations of low-income groups and the problem of jobless growth require attention. Not just in Gujarat, but elsewhere too, Congress will have to devise a more cogent approach to the challenge of building a rainbow coalition combining caste and class.

Ghost of Antony Report

Nowhere was the limitation of the “rainbow” more glaring than in the case of the Congress’s approach to Muslims and their problems in Gujarat. It did field five Muslim candidates, three of whom have been elected. But this is only a small part of the larger issue. Since the anti-Muslim violence of 2002, Gujarat has become deeply ghettoised and the Muslims have to accept sociocultural marginalisation. Therefore, it is necessary to explore possibilities of amity and insist on fair treatment. There is indeed no need to get into the trap of secular–communal debate. But that does not mean that the party should abandon the secular goal. While it is true that the Congress in the past often adopted a deeply problematic meaning of secularism and used that claim as a shield to endorse obscurantist and communal elements from among the Muslim community.

Nevertheless, secularism, diversity and inclusive politics are integral to India’s democracy. Perhaps influenced by the ghost of the Antony report, the Congress has set about making moves that underplay not the “Muslim card” but the principles of diversity and inclusion. It is quite likely that the party may win many elections adopting this approach of socially and politically marginalising Muslims, but in that case, it would be losing its essential character—it will not be Congress. By completely pushing the question of isolation of Muslims under the carpet, Congress indicated its willingness to trade off not just the community’s support but its own inclusive agenda for mere vote gathering. While secularism should not mean pandering to communal Muslim elements, it is necessary that the party fights communalism. Therefore, the sooner the party exorcises the ghost of the Antony report the better for it. What it needs to do is to strive for a comprehensive approach to distinguish between religiosity and communalism.

Rahul’s Temple Entry Movement

That urgency is clear from the confusion the Congress seems to have about handling Hindu society and the religious sentiments of Hindus. In creating a brand image of Rahul Gandhi in his Hindu avatar, there seems to be ignorance about religiosity and cynical neglect of past heritage of syncretism. Perhaps, the company assigned the task of popularising his new image is not very conversant with the way Mahatma Gandhi handled the question of religion or it was wrongly briefed. So, the Gujarat campaign witnessed Rahul Gandhi’s vigorous temple entry movement. The Congress came to be seen as disinterested in the Hindu religion not because individual Congresspersons have been less religious but because of the wrong handling of the Muslim society and the cluelessness in responding to the aggressive political Hindutva that Advani popularised from late 1980s onwards. In tune with that genre of Hindu identity, Rahul Gandhi’s many temple visits typically showcased, not spirituality, but an urge to publicise denominational membership. This only indicates confusion about what it means to be a Hindu and an inability to intervene in the discourse over Hindu religiosity.

The Hindu identity popularised by BJP and many of its associated Hindutva organisations has led people to believe that wearing one’s Hindu religious sentiment on one’s shirtsleeves is a requirement for proving you are a Hindu; but beyond this cosmetic public display, there is an implicit linking of religiosity to national identity.

Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits did nothing to challenge these distortions. When during his visits Rahul was asked whether he is a Hindu, he lost an excellent opportunity to emphasise the shared, syncretic, ganga–jamuni identity that Hindus often evolve. Instead, he kept claiming to be a devout Hindu and his politically illiterate party colleagues added that he is a pucca janeudhari Hindu! This, if not just a naive mistake, is symptomatic of the late Rajiv Gandhi’s attempt at one-upmanship in currying favour with communal and orthodox elements from both Hindu and Muslim communities.

What the Congress did in Gujarat may not be repeated elsewhere in the same way. But, in its desperate attempt to revive itself electorally, it seems to have hit upon the idea of combining welfare populism with unabashed majority appeasement. It is almost certain that such slips (or planned overemphasis?) would not only invite charges of “soft Hindutva” at the doorsteps of the new Congress president, it would also send a message to the rank and file of the party that they have to adopt the Hindutva approach. If that happens, the Congress would lose its historic positional distinction. In other words, it would lead to “Congress-mukt Bharat” by another route.


Updated On : 16th Jan, 2018


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